Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Border: A Human Sieve

The United States is a nation of immigrants. It is also a nation of immigrant bashing. Always has been. With each economic downturn, a new generation of recent immigrants becomes the scapegoat, even as those of a generation or two ago are venerated as simply industrious. With each economic upturn, the convenience of underpaid labor helps people to forget their indignation about what -- and who -- is legal.

As a geographer who has lived in Mexico, the United States, and that "in-between" land along the border, I think constantly about the real implications of the rhetoric. This is especially true as the pendulum is swinging a bit further as the recession/depression stretches out, and because the rhetoric is hardening -- quite literally hardening into a set of massive walls that will sever the human and physical geography of the borderlands for generations or centuries to come. If the wall resembles a tomb stone, it is because it marks the death of a vibrant, little-understood place -- a couple thousand miles long but only a few miles wide.

The 1994 book Border People by my former church mate Dr. Oscar Martinez provides a thorough and enjoyable explanation of the history and human geography of this unique place. The one gap is that he does not recognize the role of "snow birds" -- tens of thousands of retired, mainly Anglo northerners who flock to the border region each winter, where they are present in abstentia, in a sort of gated archipelago. It would be very interesting to study these enclaves in the midst of the current turmoil. Our friend Tom Miller's classic On the Border is a traveler's celebration of the very linear region, as he traversed each and every available crossing at the time of his writing a generation ago.

The U.S.-Mexico border has, of course, become something very different from what it was when I lived, studied, and worked in the borderlands from 1990 to 1997. In those days, it was already the case that nowhere in the world was a greater income gap to be found across an international border. It was not idyllic -- begging, vice, and violence were facts of life. But so, too, were a wide range of ecological, cultural, and economic connections that knitted the region together. Today, demand for drugs in the U.S., corruption in governments on both sides, and a free flow of weapons from an unregulated U.S. market have combined with truly onerous economic conditions in Central America and the interior of Mexico to create a truly nightmarish landscape. It is a landscape toward which people are pressed, from as far south as Chiapas or Nicaragua, lured by the false hope of a few factory jobs on the Mexico side of the border, and many more in Houston, Omaha, and even Belmont, Massachusetts.

The results are gruesome -- children living in dangerous tunnels, women killed on the way home from work, people dying in the deserts, and assassinations so common that a New Mexico librarian has become a hero simply by trying to keep a count of them.

Because the border wall will never be an absolute barrier -- the fantasies of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich notwithstanding -- I think another metaphor may be even more apt than the tomb stone: that of a sieve. It effectively separates the human worker from the human being. Just as Mitt Romney wants cheap labor to cut his grass but no underpaid workers to vote against him for president, so the entire power structure benefits from a series of barriers that allow for the free movement of capital and the furtive movement of labor, but not the free movement of political rights or moral entitlements.

Ron Paul's son, the radical candidate for U.S. Senate Rand Paul, admitted to precisely this in May, when he said,
“I’m not opposed to letting people come in and work and labor in our country. But I think what we should do is we shouldn’t provide an easy route to citizenship. A lot of this is about demographics. If you look at new immigrants from Mexico, they register 3-to-1 Democrat, so the Democratic Party is for easy citizenship and allowing them to vote. I think we need to address that."
The lack of outcry at this remark is a sign of just how far the pendulum has swung. Proponents of the border wall may come in many sizes, shapes, races, and income levels, but it would not be built if it were not serving the needs of the overclass -- those who really benefit from the division of labor in the world space-economy. Even executives of the regional banks in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas have not been able to stop the construction of the wall -- for they know it will harm regional business immeasurably -- because of the service it provides to global capital. (And global capital gives the rest of us enough cheap toys -- and cheap coffee -- that we tend to play along.)

I conclude this post with a passage from the opening pages of Richard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited. Thanks to my friend John McClintock for bringing it to my attention. Thurman first wrote this in the context of the oppression of African Americans in the 1940s; my friend John -- a military veteran, BSC philosophy graduate, and divinity student -- selected it in the context of a Memorial Day sermon about war; and I see it as deeply relevant to the discussion of how a wealthy, mostly Christian nation treats those who work to create its comforts, both at home and far away. I had the honor of reading this passage at the beginning of John's sermon at First Parish Church in Bridgewater.

Rev. Thurman wrote:

To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.

Learn more about Christian perspectives on immigration from Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

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